Russian, Central Asian governments give impression of security crackdown

A Russian congressman proposed closing borders to migrants from Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, in the wake of the attacks in Paris and last week’s arrest of over 150 suspected militants in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Vice Speaker of the lower house of the Russian legislature, son of founder Vladimir Zhironovsky and chairman of what many observers have termed the most xenophobic political party in Russia – the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia – Igor Lebedev cited the possibility of terrorists being able to flow from Islamic State (IS)-held lands through the three Central Asian countries, only two of which (Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) have visa-free arrangements with Russia. His proposal ignored that over 1,800 IS fighters are Russian citizens, and that Central Asian governments themselves are showing signs of crackdowns on religious activity inside their own borders. Pro-government, Moscow-based media company Regnum reported that Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs arrested over 150 citizens in Tashkent last week, all suspected of ties to IS, and jailed a 23-year-old citizen who pleaded guilty to having been recruited by IS in southern Russia. Authorities in southern Kyrgzstan arrested a suspected IS recruiter in its southern city of Osh, as Prime Minister Temir Sariyev charged the Ministry of Internal Affairs to step up security at bazaars and other gathering points.

A human rights activist told RFERL that most of those arrested last week in Tashkent were men who had returned from working abroad in Russia and Turkey, and may have visited IS websites while outside of Uzbekistan. Many of the men are charged of having ties to Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), an Islamist group that advocates peaceful methods to build a caliphate in Central Asia. The Uzbek government holds that Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters maintain connections to IS, although the group’s leadership rejected support for IS in opposition to its violent tactics. A report alleged that governments in the region have overblown the security threat that IS poses to Uzbekistan, adding that residents note security measures, generally high in Tashkent after the 2004 bombings of the US and Israeli embassies, have not changed significantly. Last week, the Uzbekistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged cooperation between members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) during a SCO meeting in China, citing the need for agreements with neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to monitor mountainous regions.

Central Asian leaders expressed their condolences to France after the November 14 Paris attacks, and spoke of the need to fight terrorism, yet no country proposed specific measures other than Tajikistan, which stated that it would bump up security on its borders. RIA Novosti reported that Russia and Kazakhstan plan to sign an agreement on the monitoring and use of military equipment within the framework of a 2013 agreement. Russian President Vladimir Putin has otherwise not publicly noted internal or regional security measures including the border protection agreement signed in October with leaders of former Soviet states, focusing instead on continuing Russia’s campaign in Syria and negotiating with US and European leaders to find a solution for a political transition inside of Syria. In a meeting with members of the Committee for National Reconciliation in Syria, President of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov noted after the Paris attacks that over 200 IS fighters from Russia had been killed, although he did not specify how or when.

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News Briefs:

  • Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko condemned what he termed increased separatist attacks in the east, and a military spokesman said that artillery may be returned to its eastern frontline if fighting continues. Ukraine announced that five of its soldiers were killed on November 14, and one killed and eight wounded on November 15, all in clashes with Russian-backed rebel forces to the north and west of the rebel-held city of Donetsk in Ukraine’s east. Rebel officials in turn reported Ukrainian attacks on rebel-held positions. The violence marks the most intense since the latest cease-fire agreement was concluded in September, one that largely held through October, excepting the deaths of one soldier on October 14 and two on October 26, as a rebel spokesman accused the Ukrainian military of storming the Donetsk airport. Earlier this month, both sides threatened to stop the weaponry withdrawal stipulated by the cease-fire agreement, citing continued attacks by both rebel and Ukrainian forces. The increase in violence comes in the context of increased Russian, European and US attention towards cooperation in resolving the Syrian conflict after attacks on Paris, and the US Congress’ passage of a bill authorizing $50 million in lethal aid to Ukraine should Russia be found to have violated a nuclear arms reduction treaty. A second round of local elections took place in Ukraine on November 15, in which politicians who lean towards greater integration with the EU won local seats in the country’s west, but the south and east favored Russia-supporting Opposition Bloc politicians with the notable exception of Dnipropetrovsk, seat of the province bordering Donetsk to the west.
  • Chinese state media released photos of what it reported was a police raid on suspected Uighur militants in Xinjiang Autonomous Region of western China. Posted on state-run microblogs including the Ministry of Public Safety, the nine pictures purportedly show armed police navigating mountain terrain and posing for a group picture, preparing to storm a house in a rural area. Captions at the end of the series cite the Paris’ “worst terrorist attacks in history” on November 13, saying that Xinjiang police received “great results” after carrying out full attack on terrorists after a 56-day pursuit. Spokesman for the exiled World Uighur Congress based in DC Dilxat Raxit, stated his belief that China was using the attacks in Paris to stir up anti-Uighur sentiment around China. As a Carnegie Moscow Center report points out, China is poised to take a greater role in maintaining regional security against the threat of Islamist militants in Central Asia and western China, engaging with Russian naval forces in military exercises in the Mediterranean in early 2015 and recently sending an aircraft carrier to join the Russian fleet in Syria.
  • Kazakhstan’s parliament approved legislative amendments that would enable the government to step further into the realm of Islamic finance and issue its first sovereign sukuk next year. Sukuk, or bonds structured so as to generate returns for investors without breaching Islamic law on finance, could be issued after the conversion of conventional banks into Islamic ones, for which the amendments pave. The amendments still require the presidential signature to become law. A central bank official told Kazakhstan’s Interfax news agency last week that the country plans to sell an initial $1 billion in sukuk in early 2016, as part of a $3 billion program. The plans come as Kazakhstani officials denounced the possibility of a common Eurasian currency, which economist Olzhas Khudaibergenov commented could lead to a situation similar to what happened with the euro in Greece; and a New York developer decided to cooperate with Kazakhstani officials in an $18 billion lawsuit alleging that he helped incriminated oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov and former Almaty mayor Viktor Khrapunov launder money.
  • Russian Presidential Aide Yuri Ushakov told press that President Putin will visit Iran for the November 23 Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF), Reuters reports. Ushakov stated that Putin is slated to hold talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in their first meeting since the United Nations General Assembly in September, and his first visit to Iran since 2007. The forum is to be held in preparation for the lifting of sanctions against Iran next year, contingent upon Iran’s reduction of its nuclear capabilities per July’s deal. Media reports highlight increased Russian overtures to Iran since it began airstrikes in Syria in September, including the sale of its S-300 air defense system and possible extension of two loans of $7 billion to Iran. This will be Tehran’s first time hosting the Qatar-headquartered forum since its inception in 2001. Iranian politician and diplomat Mohammad Hossein Adeli took over the position of the forum’s secretary-general in 2014 from Russian leadership.
  • Latvian business mogul Valeri Belokon is the plaintiff in an ongoing lawsuit against the government of Kyrgyzstan in an attempt to seize shares of Toronto-listed Centerra Gold, Inc., which operates a large gold mine in northeast Kyrgyzstan. An Ontario court judge froze Kyrgyzstan’s one-third share in Centerra in September when Belokon filed the case, making it impossible under current circumstances for Kyrgyzstan to comply with a restructuring plan agreed between Centerra and the country that would eventually give a 50% stake back to Kyrgyzstan. Belokon filed the lawsuit to try to obtain compensation for a Bishkek bank he owned that was seized in the 2010 uprising that unseated President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whose son Maxim is rumored to be close to the tycoon. The Baltic News Network reported in March that Belokon had turned to the Canadian courts after Kyrgyzstan had failed to comply with the payout of a $16.5 million fine to Belokon ordered by the Court of International Arbitration in Paris.
  • Turkey scrapped plans to buy the HQ 9 air defense system from China, citing technical concerns. The $3.4 billion program was canceled, and pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah reported that Turkey will now build the missile system itself. Turkish officials wavered between choosing to buy the system from China or its equivalent from European and U.S. manufacturers, and NATO officials had expressed concern that if the system was brought from China it could compromise security of NATO data. Daily Sabah itself reported that Turkey does not yet have the capacity to develop such systems.